Police officers in riot gear block a road near a burning car on a street in Hackney, east London August 8, 2011
Police officers in riot gear block a road near a burning car on a street in Hackney, east London August 8, 2011. Youths hurled missiles at police in northeast London on Monday as violence broke out in the British capital for a third night. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The rioting, looting and criminality that has engulfed London and touched other parts of England is one of the most disturbing events in modern Britain and re-poses the question "Who governs Britain?"

Many have been left baffled as to why violence has taken off on such a scale. Some have claimed that poverty has driven the dispossessed to take action in this way. However it clearly is not serious poverty as it seems to have been electrical stores which have been looted most rather than supermarkets.

Others have pointed to a feeling of powerlessness within certain sections of the community, notably the black community. One caller on a London radio station even called the riots "civil disobedience", a disgusting misuse of a noble concept.

True Mohandas Gandhi, a pioneer of "civil disobedience", was no fan of retailers or capitalism in general, but the worst he ever did was boycott shops (especially those that sold alcohol). He certainly did not smash them or steal from them.

While it is true that many of the looters appear to be black, there are also many who are white and it must be noted that many of the victims of these looters and burners are black.

Quite why the colour of the perpetrators matters is a mystery in any case, is not a crime a crime whoever commits it? Would it be better if the looters were mainly white or would it be worse? Colour is irrelevant, especially, one suspects, to the victims.

Another alleged cause is the suspicious fatal shooting by the police of suspected drug dealer Mark Duggan. The police certainly do have questions to answer on this but it has been reported that since his death only three people have bothered to put flowers at the site of his killing. Not exactly a tribute of Diana-like proportions.

No the real reason that riots have spread so rapidly and increased in seriousness seems to be much more simple. Because the criminals know they can.

For a long time we have lived in a country where the law abiding fear criminals but criminals do not fear the police. Now it is becoming apparent that not only are criminals unafraid of the police but the police are apparently afraid of the criminals.

One suspects that the current problems can be traced back at the very least to the student protests of last year.

Once again the British public were treated to the spectacle of police officers, sometimes in riot gear, standing by and watching as anarchists and (presumably) disappointed Lib Dem voters smashed private property.

And so the message went out. As long as you don't try to kill someone with a fire extinguisher or swing from the Cenotaph, please feel free to riot, loot, terrorise and cause criminal damage at leisure.

The last few nights has seen that message repeated. Not only have criminals smashed and looted houses and businesses, sometimes very small ones, but they have done so very often under the eyes of armed and armoured police officers.

While those in authority have been at pains to praise the bravery of the police, pointing out that a number of them have been seriously injured, it is quite clear that until now the police have failed in their task of protecting the public, despite the bravery of individual officers.

Last night Liberal Democrat Baroness Susan Kramer suggested that the police were "damned if they do and damned if they don't", in that on the one hand they face criticism for doing nothing while on the other they would be condemned for being "heavy handed".

Heaven forbid that the police should be "heavy handed" on criminals! What a terrible illiberal thought!

Increasingly these ongoing events are beginning to look like a battle for the streets of London. Will anarchy and selfishness rule, or will it be the law and the protection of the powerless? As things stand the supposed forces of law and order have conceded defeat for three nights running.

It is time for the police to use intense physical force to deter criminality. This must not be done as a demonstration of police power or out of vengeance, but as a means of protecting the lives, property and livelihood of the weak, many of whom are just as poor as the rioters but have not resorted to preying on their fellow citizens like orcs trying to recreate Kristallnacht.

Reports are that David Cameron will tonight triple the number of police officers in London. Will that be enough to reclaim London's streets and deter the forces of darkness? Hopefully, but they must be empowered to use all force necessary to prevent a rerun of last night otherwise it could be a case of tripling the number of pacifist sheep to beat the preying wolf, when what is needed is a ferocious sheep-dog or five.